Russia's Election: New Faces, but No Real News

A multi-sided transformable board, which informs of the upcoming presidential election on March 18 and advertises the election campaign of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is on display in a street in Moscow, Russia January 15, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

The Kremlin’s latest tactics seem designed to increase the variety of personalities allowed to run for president without threatening the outcome.

Another round of Putin’s reelection (as Russians have come to call presidential elections) is scheduled for March 18, 2018. While little may be surprising about who will actually win, the Kremlin is trying its very best to inject some interest and entertainment value into the election.

Russia’s authorities have learned from the experience of the 2011–12 election, when public dissatisfaction with lack of change led to a series of countrywide mass rallies. For a start, the authorities have introduced some liberalization to Russia’s formal electoral rules. Among other things, they permitted an increase in the official number of candidates. Legislative amendments allowed more parties to form; in the 2017 parliamentary election, fourteen parties were formally allowed to compete, as opposed to only seven parties in the prior election in 2011. Since parties can nominate their own presidential candidates, the 2018 presidential field is also expected to widen in comparison with the previous presidential election, in which only five candidates were officially registered to participate.

In addition to increasing the number of smaller-scale candidates, the Kremlin has also enforced some variation among the candidates of the traditional “system” parties. Historically, Russian politics under Putin has been characterized by a remarkable stability of parties and faces. The same four parties, headed by the same leaders—United Russia, the Communist Party (CPRF), Just Russia and the Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia (which is actually national populist)—have contested all of the last three elections. Hence Russia’s elections have often felt like a visit to old relatives, with familiar faces and encounters.

One such familiar face in the Communist Party is Gennady Zyuganov, who has chaired the Communist Party for twenty-three consecutive years and taken part in every Russian presidential election since 1996 (except for 2004). It thus came as a something of a surprise when a newcomer—Pavel Grudinin—announced he would run for president on the Communist ticket. Grudinin, who is a successful strawberry-selling businessman with alleged links to the local Moscow government and is not a Communist Party member, owns a company named Lenin Sovkhoz and bears a physical resemblance to Joseph Stalin. Grudinin previously served in the Moscow regional parliament as a candidate from the United Russia party (formally the Communists’ competitor), and served as a surrogate for presidential candidate Vladimir Putin. Later, he developed ties to the political Left. Kremlin-linked observers hint that Grudinin’s candidacy was pushed by the Kremlin despite the Communists’ initial resistance. Grudinin’s candidacy is a continuation of the Kremlin’s effort to add variety to the pool of traditional presidential candidates.